- Associated Press - Friday, March 3, 2017

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Members of a legislative committee have kept alive a bill to prevent state agencies from spending taxpayer dollars to influence the outcome of ballot questions posed to voters.

But several legislators said they worry the legislation would prevent agencies from providing important perspectives on referendums, some of which may be financed by millions of dollars from outside the state.

A vote Friday by the veterans and legal affairs committee keeps the bill alive. Democratic Rep. Craig Hickman will now draw up an amendment clearing up issues in the bill that the committee will consider before deciding whether the bill advances to the full legislature.

“The way I read this bill, it doesn’t prohibit agencies from making facts or expenditures that do present impartial facts,” said Independent Rep. Owen Casás, who said there’s “enough good” in the bill to justify continued attention.

A Cumberland County Superior Court judge ruled in 2014 that wildlife officials could oppose bear-hunt restrictions. The state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife had spent state funds campaigning against such a referendum and appeared in commercials funded by opposition groups. Filming for the commercial occurred during work hours.

The judge also said lawmakers could limit the agency’s ability to fund and participate in campaigns.

Chapman’s bill would allow agencies to spend money to produce and distribute an “impartial factual summary” about statewide referendum questions.

The legislation would only allow a summary that doesn’t contain the agency’s opinion for or against the issue. The summary also would have to contain a record of arguments both for and against the issue.

Several legislators said such a requirement could raise concerns such as who would determine whether a summary is “impartial and factual.”

Don Kleiner, executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association, testified last month that not allowing state agencies to “spend money to explain their viewpoint” is “the same as silencing them.” Maine Forest Products Council Executive Director Patrick Strauch said a summary without a conclusion or opinion “provides no guidance for policymakers or the people of Maine.”

“Nor should the experienced staff of state agencies be required to restate the partisan arguments about these divisive issues,” he said.

Democrat Louis Luchini, the House chair of the committee, said it’s important to get input from agency experts since referendum campaigns don’t have public hearing components.

“I think agencies should be able to advocate a position,” he said. “The police should be able to say if they think something’s going to impact public safety.”

Democratic Sen. Michael Carpenter, a former state Attorney General, said it seems OK for an agency representative to go on television and share what it considers objective information. But, he said, it is “influencing” when the representative is speaking over a “tagline that says ‘Vote Yes’ or ‘Vote No.’”

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